Empty Quiver

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"I don't know what's scarier, losing nuclear weapons, or that it happens so often there's actually a term for it."
Giles Prentice, Broken Arrow

Nukes are very powerful things, capable of doing untold damage in the wrong hands. So of course, when a nuke shows up in fiction, you can just bet it will end up in the wrong hands.

The trope name comes from a US military code phrase, meaning any situation involving the theft or seizure of a functioning nuclear weapon. The accidental loss of a nuclear weapon is also included in this trope, though the military uses a different code phrase for it (Broken Arrow).

See also Artistic License - Nuclear Physics and A Nuclear Error.

Examples of Empty Quiver include:


Anime & Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

Comics[edit | hide]

  • Batman: A Death in the Family features a nuke falling into the wrongest possible hands.
  • The second Whiteout graphic novel.
  • A 1970s Richie Rich story has this when he and his father are given a tour and shown a rack of 10 particularly powerful nuclear bombs, but Richie notices to his alarm that he only counts nine...

Film[edit | hide]

  • James Bond:
    • Thunderball - one of the earlier examples.
    • Goldfinger (in the original novel by Ian Fleming) has the warhead of a Corporal Intermediate Range Guided Missile stolen to order (in exchange for a million dollar bribe) so he can blast open the vault of Fort Knox. Supposedly it's one of the new 'clean' warheads with little fallout.
      • In the film version, the bomb is a purposely 'dirty' one to ensure that any gold at Fort Knox that survives the blast would be radioactive for decades. Thus causing a massive financial panic making Goldfinger's wealth multiple instantly, as well as the mafia who steal as much as they can while the project goes ahead, but also causing chaos and upheaval on behalf of the Chinese Communists who in the movie supply the nuke.
    • Octopussy - although it's a Soviet General providing the bomb free of charge.
    • GoldenEye
    • The World Is Not Enough
  • The Abyss
    • Is this a real example due to the loss of the submarine or a mistaken one due to the removal of the warhead by the SEAL team?
  • John Woo's Broken Arrow - the title of the film is the term for a nuclear weapons accident which they tried to portray it as to cover up the real plot. However Broken Arrow does sound cooler.
    • The use is correct: Broken Arrow refers to an accidental event that involves nuclear weapons, warheads or components, but which does not create the risk of nuclear war. Like jettisoning of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component. The detonation is still Broken Arrow as it does not create the risk of nuclear war.
  • Used in Austin Powers International Man of Mystery:

Dr. Evil: Shit. Oh hell, let's just do what we always do. Hijack some nuclear weapons and hold the world hostage. Yeah? Good! Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that a breakaway Russian Republic called Kreplachistan will be transferring a nuclear warhead to the United Nations in a few days. Here's the plan. We get the warhead and we hold the world ransom for... one million dollars!

  • Outland. Although not a plot point, the temporary disappearance of some nuclear detonators is used to highlight the apathy and incompetence of the company police on the space-mining colony.
  • Frantic (1988). The MacGuffin for which Harrison Ford's wife is kidnapped turns out to be a krytron -- a small electronic switch used in ICBM separation or the detonators of nuclear devices.
  • Get Smart, in the 2008 movie, when KAOS gets a nuke and threatens to blow up Los Angeles with it.
  • The Soldier (1982). A Renegade Russian KGB agent steals plutonium and uses it to make an atomic bomb to blackmail the United States by threatening to detonate it in the Saudi oilfields unless the US forces Israel off the West Bank. The Heroes-R-Us group takes over an ICBM (using plans and equipment prepared by the CIA in case the President went insane and ordered a nuclear strike—a case of being literally Crazy Prepared) and get the KGB Big Bad to back off by threatening to launch on Moscow.
  • Whiteout. Murder is committed over the cargo of a Soviet plane downed during the Cold War. However what everyone assumes to be nuclear material actually turns out to be uncut diamonds.
  • The Peacemaker: A shipment of Russian warheads scheduled to be decommissioned is stolen and the theft is covered up by detonating one of them on-site.
  • In Stargate, the nuke O'Neil brings along ends up in Ra's possession.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • 24 - Literally every other season.
  • Doctor Who, in both Battlefield and "World War Three".
  • The Professionals. A white supremacist group steals enough plutonium to make an atomic bomb in "Stakeout".
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E. reunion movie "The Fifteen Years Later Affair."

"You may consider your organization as having come of age, Mr. Kemp. THRUSH is now a nuclear power."

  • NCIS: Los Angeles had a nuke stolen in order to make billions, as even the possibility of a nuclear explosion would send the stock exchange into a nosedive, allowing the bad guys to cash in. Since the episode was called "Empty Quiver" it wasn't that hard to guess what was stolen.
    • JAG also had an episode where a nuclear missile disappeared during transfer to a submarine. Subverted when it was discovered that, through a series of missteps (including a blackout due to transferring to ship's power), the missile was ejected into the harbor. The JAG investigator notes that while it was an accident, it was very likely none of the sailors involved would serve on any combat ship ever again.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • In Wednesday's Wrath, Mack Bolan discovers a plan to rob White Sands of nuclear & chemical weapons during a range demonstration. A Dept of Defense strategist had become obsessed with an "unbeatable" war game he'd developed involving a similar scenario, and when his superiors told him to drop the matter decided to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Phoenix Force (an '80's action/adventure spin-off series of Mack Bolan, written by Gar Wilson) novel The Fury Bombs.
  • The first few Track novels by Jerry Ahern are based around a neo-Nazi plot to use a hundred stolen nuclear weapons to blackmail the world.
  • Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears featured an air-dropped Israeli nuclear weapon lost during the Yom Kippur War, later found in a Druze farmer's field in Syria, and refurbished with the help of an East German scientist. The movie doesn't get as detailed about it, but it didn't happen, anyway.
    • And the whole crises is made worse because the CIA had been getting some disinformation from one of their spies in the USSR indicating that that they had "lost" some of their nukes: something Jack Ryan found hard to believe, because those aren't something that you just lose.
  • The Golden Rendezvous by Alistair MacLean. The villains steal the latest mini-nuke from the United States, and plan to use it to destroy all evidence and witnesses after their robbery of a gold shipment. Though why they don't just sell the nuke...
  • Three nukes are the weapons of mass destruction that are claimed to have been stolen by terrorists in John Ringo's Unto the Breach, to the US president, instead of the actual theft, due to the sensitive nature of the stolen material. Not really a subversion, though, as the reader is aware from the start about the real WMD that's been stolen, as the theft scene is at the very beginning of the book.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Every Metal Gear Solid game:
    • Metal Gear Solid: FOXHOUND hijacks Metal Gear REX with the threat of firing its railgun-launched nuke if their ransom demands aren't met.
    • Metal Gear Solid 2: Dead Cell steal Arsenal Gear with the intent of detonating its experimental nuke in the air over Wall Street, destroying The Patriots' information network there.
    • Metal Gear Solid 3: American defector delivers a tactical nuke to a GRU Colonel. He test-fires it on his own troops at the end of the first act. There's also The Shagohod, but that's not stolen.
    • Metal Gear Solid 4: Ocelot retrieves REX's forgotten railgun and its armed nuke to destroy The Patriots orbital command satellite.
    • Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker has the nuke 'legally' owned by the villains. It's then Kaz who steals it and attaches it to ZEKE to use as MSF's deterrent, and since we all know where Big Boss ended up...
  • The Modern Warfare series thrives on this concept.
  • Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter involved the president's nuclear football being stolen. The sequel involved two nukes being stolen.
  • Wild ARMs 2 has a situation like this, where the leader of one country excavates an ancient nuke in order to intimidate the absurdly powerful terrorist organization that's currently running amok all over the planet. Three guesses as to who ends up swiping the nuke and whether or not it actually gets used.
  • In Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium Wars's Nod campaign, Act III revolves around a combination of this, an Alien Invasion, and Kane living. Note that the theft is accomplished in two parts: first, hijacking the warheads by force using the aforementioned alien invasion as cover and then pretending to team up with the local GDI garrison against the aliens while secretly stealing the launch codes. And then you get to nuke (a GDI base near) Sydney.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • This website has a list of nuclear bombs which are believed to have been lost at sea.
  • In 1966, a B-52G collided with its KC-135 refueller off the southern coast of Spain, the KC-135 exploding and the B-52 breaking up. Of the four nuclear weapons being carried at the time by the bomber, three dropped on land near the fishing village of Palomares, Spain, and the remaining one fell in the Mediterranean Sea. All four devices were eventually recovered, though the conventional explosives of two of the three that fell on land detonated, contaminating the area with weapon grade plutonium.
    • To make it worse, they attempted to recover the weapons and clean up the contamination, all while insisting to the Spanish officials and locals that there was absolutely nothing going on. Part of the fallout from this was that American jets were not allowed to fly over Spanish territory for years afterwards, including during an operation where bombers were launched from England to strike targets in Libya in the 80's[1]
  1. The jets, retaliating for a series of terrorist attacks backed by the Libyan government, were forced to fly from England, around Spain, and up the length of the Mediterranean to hit their targets, then fly back the same way they came.